The Jews of Eastern Europe's shtetls followed a strict weekly bread calendar. Six days a week they ate dense, dark loaves. Then on the seventh, the Sabbath, they enjoyed light and golden challah.
Almost all their weekday breads were made with greater or lesser amounts of korn, a now-antiquated term for grains or kernels, and which usually meant rye. In Poland and Lithuania, kornbroyt, or corn rye, was a regional specialty, a moist and dense (yet soft) loaf full of rich flavor.
Jewish immigrants carried their bread traditions to the New York, opening bakeries on the Lower East Side and then in Brooklyn, the Bronx, the Upper West Side, and beyond. The kornbroyt, or "corn loaf" as it became known (which is not to say it's made with corn, was one of the building blocks of the Jewish-American bread world: a big, leathery-looking boule with seven or eight distinctive dimples on the top.
Aficionados knew the bakeries' schedules and bought their corn loaf by the pound, hot from the oven and to be rushed home, cut into thick slabs, and slathered with butter. Eating it was almost a sacramental rite, celebrating the pure pleasure of bread as a living food.
These days, assimilation and industrialization are taking their toll on the Jewish bakery tradition, and corn rye is a particularly endangered breed. Two years ago, I organized a tasting of loaves from six of the remaining Old School bakeries. Last December, the winner of that competition, Stork's in Whitestone, Queens, closed its doors, ending a half century of baking excellence.
Luckily, the runner-up, Chiffon Kosher Cake Center, is still going strong as the best all-around Jewish bakery in the city. And now, in a time of revitalized bagels and pastrami that we're daring to call a Jewish comeback, two new-school bakeries have started making corn ryes of their own.
Hot Bread Kitchen's Ben Hershberger developed his Corn Rye ($6) with a veteran of the Jewish bakery world. It's a soft boule made from unbleached wheat flour, New York rye flour, water, rye levain, salt, caraway seeds, cornmeal, and yeast.
Unlike classic corn loaves, this one has cornmeal dusted on the top as well as the bottom. It's a soft, almost juicy loaf with a good rye flavor beneath the pronounced but not overpowering caraway spice. Right now it's only available at Russ & Daughters, but it will soon also be sold at Hot Bread Kitchen's Greenmarket stands. A slice makes a perfect base for a sheet of Russ & Daughters' nova.
With decades of old school baking history in its store, Orwasher's isn't your average "new wave" bakery. But under owner Keith Cohen it's become one of the city's most creative while paying heed to older traditions. Act now to buy the Orwasher's corn rye loaf ($5), which is only sold during March. (Perhaps popular acclaim can convince the bakery to make it year round.)
This is another boule, made from rye starter, white flour, water, caraway seeds, salt yeast, and an ingredient not available to the bakers of Eastern Europe: Righteous Rye Ale from Sixpoint Brewery. The result is a chewy loaf with the requisite nutty, grain aroma. I only wish I could get it hot from the oven.
Finally, we have to return, as always, to the Classic Corn Rye ($1.99 a pound) made by Chiffon Kosher Cake Center. This is a softer, lighter loaf than the new-school examples above. It comes with the classic dimpled, slightly leathery crust. I prefer the no-seeds version, which allows the nutty corn rye flavor to shine.
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